'American Idol' seeks a Diamond in the rough

I got no thrills from Dolly Parton Night. Mariah Carey Night didn't thrill me at all. So tell me why, should it be right, that I'm hoping to get a kick out of Neil Diamond Night? Would the American Idol Tuesday (April 29) Two-fer Tribute to the Jazz Singer live up to my expectations?

Jasoncastro_americanidol7_top12partSinger: JASON CASTRO
Song: "Forever In Blue Jeans"
My Take: If Andrew Lloyd Webber's lite opera excesses crushed Jason and Brooke White last week, this should be a much friendlier theme, since Neil Diamond has been famously and successfully covered by all manner of artists and his greatest strength isn't necessarily his vocal range. The key to Neil Diamond is selling the snot out of every earnest, irony-free word, and Jason's dreamy sincerity is well-tailored for the material. The song starts off too low for him and I don't exactly know what he's singing about, but it's pleasant and friendly and as it moves higher, Jason sounds decent. He's got "September Morn" coming next, which means that Clifford the Muppet won't be singing "Shiloh," which I'd have pegged as a slam-dunk for a contestant who probably has several imaginary friends of his own. Tonight's format is wonky, as the judges will have to be taking notes before giving a cumulative evaluation after the second performance.

Singer: PRESUMPTIVE AMERICAN IDOL FINALIST DAVID COOK
Song: "I'm Alive"
My Take: Boy, I'd have bet the farm on David "The Leader" Cook rocking "Solitary Man" tonight. Like Jason, David's back on his guitar this week. And, like Jason, David's discovering that Neil Diamond's baritone isn't easily reproducible if your vocal range tends more comfortably to the higher notes. I don't instantly know what arrangement of the song this is, but I know that David really struggles with the earlier, lower parts of the track. Does this clip feel truncated to anybody? Maybe it's because David is actually handling the melody on his guitar, but it takes him a long time to approach the chorus and by the time he begins to look and sound at ease, the song is over. I guess that's the way several Diamond songs are structured.

Brookewhite_americanidol7_top12partSinger: BROOKE WHITE
Song: "I'm a Believer"
My Take: This is another Jason Castro-suited track, since I don't usually think of Brooke as being particularly playful and I do think of Jason as being ready-made for 1967's doofiest pre-fabricated boy band. Why wouldn't we have raised any of Neil's songs by an octave? That wouldn't have been so hard, would it? Because Brooke is also trapped trying to battle through a song that's just too deep for her voice. She gets Paula on her feet, but to me this performance comes across as much much more work than it should, and her smile seems forced when juxtaposed with her laboring, breathless vocals. I absolutely want to give Brooke credit for trying something different, for going rousing and campy when Neil Diamond could have provided her with plenty of wide-eyed spiritual options, but there's a reason she doesn't usually go down this path.

Singer: PRESUMPTIVE AMERICAN IDOL FINALIST DAVID ARCHULETA
Song: "Sweet Caroline"
My Take: Somebody looked at Li'l' Archie's demographics and realized that he was tracking poorly in the New England area, so they assigned him Red Sox Nation's favorite Diamond hit, "Sweet Caroline." The Idol audience is unprepared to sing along, but maybe they're confused by the arrangement. Or perhaps they're perplexed that Archuleta is singing an up-tempo song, but he's performing it with the exact same mannerisms he's brought to the message songs he's done for the past six weeks. The arm sweep, the closed eyes, the tremendous absence of tangible pleasure, it's a David Archuleta Special. The kid doesn't have a clue what he's singing about when it doesn't involve homelessness or disease and as meaningless as "Sweet Caroline" is, he makes it even more of a muddle. But he's in tune.

Syeshamercado_americanidol7_top12paSinger: SYESHA MERCADO
Song: "Hello Again"
My Take: Why didn't anybody do Neil Diamond's version of Kaddish from Jazz Singer? That would have been awesome. Jason has, after all, shown eagerness to tackle languages he doesn't exactly understand. Like English. Anywho... Syesha's the night's first performer with a properly arranged song. She's got the song under control from the beginning and she handles her full 90 seconds without a low-register mumble. This has been one of the worst produced Idol episodes I can remember. The format stinks, the musical arrangements haven't been worthy of the songs and if you know Syesha beginning her song seated, you shouldn't start from a camera position behind the morons waving their arms inappropriately in the mosh pit.

POORLY PROGRAMMED JUDGE INTERLUDE:

Randy says: Jason was OK, David Cook was in the zone, Brooke was better than last week, Archuleta is da bomb and Syesha's in the zone.
Paula says: In one of the most awkward moments in recent Idol memory, Paula says she loved Jason's first song, but wasn't impressed with the second and that he didn't do enough. One problem: Jason's only performed once. Ryan looks embarrassed. Paula looks flustered.
Simon says: Jumping in to save the addled Paula, Simon tears into the singers, calling Jason forgettable, David Cook "just above average," Brooke "a nightmare," David Archuleta "amateurish" and Syesha "old-fashioned."

THE SECOND SONGS:

Singer: JASON CASTRO
Song: "September Morn"
My Take: If you're Jason, how do you bounce back from Paula telling you your second performance wasn't good enough before you give your second performance? That's tough. Even if Paula hadn't warned me, though, I might have diagnosed that Jason had gone into into an insulin shock back stage, because he delivers his second performance in an utter coma. There's no connection to the melody, the audience, the lyrics or much of anything. It's like he's checked out.
Master Shake, Frylock and Simon Say: Randy calls it just OK and he doesn't understand what Jason's doing around at this point. Paula urges him to get out of his comfort zone. "Oh Jason, come on," a frustrated Simon says, wondering what happened to the Jason they put through. The problem, Simon, is that the Jason you put through was good enough to make the Top 12 or maybe the Top 10. He isn't good enough to still be around at this point.

Davidcook_americanidol7_top12party0Singer: PRESUMPTIVE AMERICAN IDOL FINALIST DAVID COOK
Song: "All I Really Need Is You"
My Take: This is a much better arrangement and performance for David. I'm still lamenting the absence of his "Solitary Man," or also perhaps one of the Rick Rubin-produced songs off of Diamond's last album. He still finds a way to put just enough edge into the song's second half to recover some of the David Cook flair that was missing in the first performance. This wasn't a bad night for David, but he should have blown the competition away.
Master Shake, Frylock and Simon Say: Randy thinks it was blazing. Paula's proud of David's song choice, telling him that she feels like she's already looking at the American Idol. Simon calls the second song "brilliant" and contemporary.

Singer: BROOKE WHITE
Song: "I Am... I Said"
My Take: Oh great. A song about declaring your individual voice in a sea of alienation delivered by a singer whose voice is cookie-cutter and whose need to be loved is near-pathological. It's a song about bicoastal dislocation and I don't care if Diamond gave her permission, but if you're from Arizona and you're living in LA, you aren't lost between two shores. Really, she takes the song out behind the woodshed and spanks all of the meaning out of it. She ends every line with an odd, up-beat squeak, but I guess she picks up by the chorus. This is a song I really, really like. I'm going to have to get out my iPod (UNPAID PRODUCT PLUG!) to listen to the original at the commercial break to clear the taste from my mouth.
Master Shake, Frylock and Simon Say: Randy says it was a nice job. Paula thinks that Brooke reclaimed her vulnerability. Simon wants to repeat how much he hated the first song, but he thinks this one was better. Brooke makes sure she thanks everybody.

Davidarchuleta_americanidol7_top12pSinger: PRESUMPTIVE AMERICAN IDOL FINALIST DAVID ARCHULETA
Song: "America"
My Take: There are some unexpected and uncharacteristic rough patches to Li'l Archie's handling of some of the higher notes on what is truly Diamond's most magnificently cheesy song. [The judges won't mention that pitchiness, but they should be made to listen back to the beginning.] All of the second songs have been better arranged than the first and after croaking out those early notes, David comes through with a find performance that becomes predictably uber-serious at the end. Since I view Archuleta as having a strong Faith Healer vibe about him, I'd have killed to hear him sing "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show," but nobody asked my opinion.
Master Shake, Frylock and Simon Say: Randy raves. Paula's happy, but her comments are incoherent. Simon thinks it was a was a smart song choice for David's demographic. Really? This season we've seen premature exits for the show's two foreign contestants (three if you thought Ramiele left early). Is an anthem celebrating unfettered immigration and the realities of the American Dream really so well-suited? Would Michael Johns and Carly Smithson agree?

Singer: SYESHA MERCADO
Song: "Thank the Lord for the Night Time"
My Take: Syesha pulls a nice 180 from her first performance, going with one of Diamond's signature spiritual tracks, which sounds much less like a work of White Chocolate affectation when she does it. Personally, I get a kick out of Diamond's revivalist preacher shtick and Syesha plays it to the hilt as well, complete with hand-clapping. She's also the night's only singer to prowl more than a well-worn three-feet of the big Idol stage.
Master Shake, Frylock and Simon Say: You know what Randy's loving? It's that Syesha's in her zone. Paula all over the place with her joy. Simon suspects Syesha will be in trouble because her second song wasn't memorable enough. It isn't exactly going out on a limb to say that a performer who's taken up residence in the Bottom Three might be in trouble.

TONIGHT'S BEST: To my mind, Syesha did two songs that were completely different and that showcased a breadth of personality and succeeded both. Nobody else did that. David Cook's second performance was very strong. Archuleta was reliable.

IN DANGER: Jason Castro was overmatched on both songs and by all rights he should be going home, though I don't doubt that Syesha also be in jeopardy. I don't doubt that Brooke's fans will love her mangling of "I Am... I Said," so that should keep her safe, even though her version of "I'm a Believer" was indefensible.

Agree? Disagree, Brooke White Fans? Who do you figure's in danger?

And, as always, check out Zap2it's Guide to American Idol.